By Edd Merritt
I’ve got a bike. You can ride it if you like
It’s got a basket, a bell that rings and
Things to make it look good.
I’d give it to you if I could . . .
– “Bike” Syd Barrett, Pink Floyd
So, where did my focus on bicycles come from? Well, it’s a bit of a convoluted story that connects my own youth with a modern read from one of the more interesting books I have picked up recently. That book, Charles Pierce’s The Best American Sports Writing, 2019, is not a standard text on sports. It is 24 writers’ in-depth analyses of a wide variety of what not all of us would identify as athletic activities.
For example: How many people consider Rubik’s Cube speed competition a full-blown sport, or winning a mini-refrigerator while covering the Super Bowl for Gentleman’s Quarterly? (To me, that really stretched the meaning of the word, but the author seemed thrilled that she was able to lay out her victory on the page.) Even something that brings in an NBA superstar, who happens to be from Cameroon and went through a tribal ritual of killing a lion in order to reach manhood and America. “Fists of Fury,” Tom Layden’s article from Sports Illustrated that delved into the personalities of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, runners and fist raisers on the 1968 Olympic podium, describes as much their personalities, their distinct differences in attitudes as well as their likenesses, both, however, punctuating a common cause and identifying themselves as symbols and promoters of the Black Power movement to be followed by Colin Kaepernick a half century later.
One of the chapters that jogged my memory was from Bicycling magazine, “The Redemption of Artis Monroe.” It discussed how he, incarcerated in a California state prison near Napa Valley, is a fixer of bikes. He says that there is “no better job on the Ranch than this. It’s freedom within prison.” In his workshop, a corrugated metal shed, he restores donated bikes and returns them to the community. Its purpose is not only for him to learn a job skill but to then show its use in society.
Well, reading Artis’ redeeming occupation took me back to my own youth and what a central feature my bicycle was in it (It was my bike without incarceration, mind you, around which my world revolved. Come to think of it, perhaps my bike kept me out of the slammer.).
I had a Schwinn. You remember them, don’t you? The seats were closer to rotund than to narrow and padded for comfort. The handle bars spread out broadly from the frame so that when you rode it appeared that you were cruising at a significant speed when, in fact, you were more bent over the bike’s body than bent to a finish line on the track. They had fenders front and back to keep water and mud from the rider’s chin or back of the neck. You applied the brakes by stepping backward on the pedals. Handbrakes were for those riders whose primary language was not English.
Minnesota adults rode inside automobiles with heaters. We pre-driver’s license juniors offered our bodies to the winds—stopping just short of snow season. Much of non-winter was spent on our bikes.
I’m not quite certain which activity came first, delivering newspapers or living in my bike saddle. I do know that the bicycle and the Rochester Post Bulletin delivery were combined. Between folding the paper in a tight bundle, riding nonstop and throwing the folded papers on the porches house to house, block to block without dismounting from the bike, gave me a sense of accomplishment—as well as a snippet of cash.
My paper route was a daily one except for Sundays. The Post Bulletin did not print an issue that day. If it had, it would have been a tough fold.
The Post Bulletin came out as an evening edition, complementing the morning Minneapolis Tribune, but I could start and finish my route before dinner. I covered the southwest section of town, and between my front basket and my over-the-shoulder bag, I was able to hold enough folded papers to deliver to all subscribers in one circle of the neighborhood. Several of them timed me perfectly and greeted my throw to their porches with smiles and thank yous. I maintained my business face.
Schwinns were perfect parent-style bikes—squat, a broad gas-tank-like structure between the seat and the handlebars that made them look like a turtle with wheels. We young riders felt we needed to give them some flare, so we raised the seats and lowered the handlebars, meaning we sat high and leaned low as though we were chasing a mountain lion. We attached baseball cards to the rear wheel spokes, thinking we were mimicking hot rods. In fact, we were simply ruining Yogi Berra.
Our bikes provided us with opportunities to learn some simple mechanics. Chains and derailleurs seemed to separate periodically, and we needed to become adept at re-attaching them before peddling again. If the process slowed my paper route, I had to develop the leg strength to up my speed—good sports training.
Our bikes became the hot rods of our generation as we did wheelies up Broadway in the closest thing to a gang that we could muster.
In his story, Artis Monroe was also a rider as well as a fixer. He was his own gang of one, but his bicycles were his telescopes to his future, out of prison, into a productive world. That occurred in February of 2017 after he had restored over 800 bikes. He did not keep the one he had saved for himself—nor did I. My Schwinn and I departed one afternoon at the bottom of the “Canyon Trail,” leading from “Pill Hill” (doctor homesteads) through a cut in the hillside that was the closest thing we could call a canyon to a section of town ignobly known as “Goon Valley.”
Having moved forward in life to the age at which I could win an automobile driver’s license, I exchanged Schwinn for VW and drove it off to college.